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The one leadership skill that might actually save someone’s life

Picture of a man standing on a balcony overlooking a field and several buildings while wearing a warm jacket with a red cross logo on the back on an overcast day.
Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels

5 practical ways to become a better listener

Earlier this year, I attended a leadership development course. I learned a lot about myself there and in the six months since. The most important thing I learned is that I still have room for improvement at the one thing I’ve studied and practiced for years.


Wait, what? I have a degree in communications! I’ve spent my entire career in leadership positions where listening is a core skill of the job. How is it possible that I need to improve this skill?

Listening is like breathing.

In most cases, you won’t die right away if the air quality is poor. But you’ll likely develop health issues if you breathe toxic fumes regularly. And, if the oxygen levels get too low, you’re probably not going to make it very long without some kind of intervention.

Our ability to lead depends on the quality of our listening skills in the same way that our bodies depend on the quality of the air we breathe. Other people often pay the price for our toxic leadership listening habits. Sometimes, they pay with their life.

I’m writing this because, if I need to improve in spite of all my experience, there’s a pretty good chance other people can also improve. Read on with an open mind and a willingness to look at yourself — even if it makes you as uncomfortable as I was.


Learning to listen

The work of building good listening hygiene starts early in life. Maybe you’ve heard this before:

The older I get, the smarter my parents become.

Young people are incredibly confident. They often have an unflappable trust in their mental and physical abilities. Why not? After all, if you’ve never fallen down, why would you think you’d get hurt? When someone tells you to be careful, you hear it but don’t have a framework for processing why.

Confidence, however misplaced, is often rewarded. When a child successfully completes the bicycle jump after a parent warns them not to attempt it, Be careful! goes into the “advice I can safely ignore” category. We learn to listen selectively.

Most of the time, the worst we get is a sprain or some bumps and bruises. But sometimes, the results are more catastrophic. A head injury from not wearing a helmet, passenger ejection from not wearing a seatbelt, life altering injuries or even death from driving after just one more…

We grow up thinking, that bad thing? It won’t happen to me.

Most of us let our experience dictate how we listen. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t get any better when we’ve grown up and moved into a corporate setting.

Let me show you one behavior we’ve all done at least once — and, probably more often than any of us want to admit. Then, I’ll show you how it makes its way into work. I’ll even prove that cultivating a culture that fails to listen can kill.


Go ahead, I’m listening…

It isn’t a secret that we’re more distracted now than ever before. There’s a dizzying array of technology to help us stay connected. Smart watches. Glasses. Even your toothbrush can send you alerts.

Nothing is more prevalent than the cell phone. You’re probably familiar with the 2009 Car and Driver test that showed drivers who text behind the wheel are more dangerous than those who are intoxicated.

Photo of a man wearing sunglasses and looking down at the phone in his hand while sitting behind the steering wheel of a car.
Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Pexels

But that’s THOSE people, right? Sure thing. Here’s a winky-emoji 😉 for everyone who just thought that.

Who isn’t guilty of finishing a text while rolling forward from a stoplight?

Maybe this a more relatable example. The other day, I was having a great conversation with someone. Then, a cell phone buzzed and this happened:

Uh, huh…


Then I stopped talking.

Go ahead, I’m listening.

When I asked what I said last, the answer was the thing I said before the phone came out.

There are lots of other stories.

  • The guy in a meeting who says he’s listening but asks everybody to repeat what they just said.

  • The lady who pulls out her phone AND ANSWERS IT while in the middle of a conversation.

  • The guy who watches the game over the other person’s shoulder while pretending to hold a conversation.

Chances are good you’ve had this done to you. And, you’ve probably also done it to someone else.

Go ahead, I’m listening.

No, actually, we’re not.


January 28, 1986

7 people died because leaders didn’t listen

Many people know this story, but some still don’t. I could retell it but this NPR article gets to the point better and faster:

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief. The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them. That night, he told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.” When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol’s headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

Photo of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Photo by WikiImages on Pixabay

Bob Ebeling knew there would be a problem with the O-rings between the segments of the solid rocket boosters if the launch proceeded in usually cold temperatures. Bob Ebeling spoke up. But the leaders in his company and at his customer (NASA) didn’t want to listen.

  • 7 people died.

  • NASA lost $450 million dollars on a failed launch.

  • The US Navy spent $13 million dollars in search and recovery.

  • The country spent $175 million dollars on a federal investigation.

To be fair, space exploration is costly and astronauts know the risks. None of the NASA or Morton Thiokol leaders intended for anyone to die. To even suggest that would be completely ridiculous.

But the 7 people who actually did die had put their lives on the line with full confidence that leaders throughout NASA and the entire supply chain were equally committed to the processes and systems that were supposed to keep them alive.


That makes sense for people launching rockets but that’s not really what we do…

In the United States, approximately 15 people will die EACH DAY as a result of workplace accidents. According to the National Safety Council, an average of 12 of those daily deaths were preventable during 2016.

15 avatar images of people where 12 are blue and 3 are grey
12 out of 15 people killed at work in 2016 could still be alive today

In 2016, there were also 4.5 million workplace injuries that resulted in a doctor’s visit.The costs of workplace preventable deaths and injuries in that year alone was estimated at $151.1 billion.

Having trouble getting your mind around that number?

With that amount of cash, you could buy 7 brand new Tesla Model S cars EVERY MINUTE for an entire year — and still have money left over.

Picture showing 7 white Tesla model S sedans

Hey, nobody is going to die in my business this year

You know what? You’re probably right.

And, I’m really glad to know that (so are your employees, by the way.)

But will you consider this?

How many “preventable” bad decisions were made in your company last year? There’s a lot of talk about “failing fast”. That’s a different kind of decision than the one I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about the ones where, like Bob Ebeling, a team member warned someone in advance — and they ended up being right.

Maybe some examples from my own experience may help you think about this in a different way.

  • That person isn’t the right fit for this role. That’s ok, I have my reasons.

  • Can you let us know how much money we need to save this quarter? We’ve got this, you just keep your head down and make sure we meet the goal the board set for your department.

  • I need to replace this entire team, they’re not performing well and the dysfunction is spreading. We can’t afford to hire their replacements right now, just do what you can with what you’ve got.

  • This isn’t the right customer for us, they’ll cost us more in time and reputation than the revenue we’ll get. Just get them onboard — we need the money.

Bad business decisions lead to business failures like holes below the waterline lead to sunken ships. The worse the decision, the faster water pours in.

Here are just a handful of business impacts that come from poor leadership listening:

  • Lack of buy-in (Why should I speak up, they’re going to do their own thing anyway.)

  • Lost customers (Look, the policy says we have to do this — sorry you feel like you have to go to the competition. My hands are tied.)

  • Crummy reviews (My experience was terrible, but what other options do I have?)

  • Employee turnover (Why do I work here instead of somewhere I can make a difference?)

The financial impact in every one of these examples (and so many more) was rooted in a failure to listen.


Where do you start?

It is true that leadership is not a consensus sport. Sometimes, we have to make a decision where somebody isn’t happy or completely bought-in. But let’s also recognize this for what it is. Too often, leaders don’t genuinely listen because they, like NASA and Morton Thiokol, are too bought into their decision and their timing.

Here are 5 things you can do, right now, to improve you leadership listening:

1. Identify your biases

Experience and personality cause bias in our listening. They’re both good things that are ingrained within us. But we don’t often acknowledge that they’re actively bending and warping the messages we’re hearing from others.

Recognize your experience and behavioral preferences for what they are. Use them to your advantage and the benefit of those around you.

Share your experience.

Ask for alternate viewpoints.

Be willing to change when someone else’s experience or preference is different than yours.

2. Reduce distraction

When you look someone in the eye, you can’t also look at your phone. Or your watch. Or your computer. And once you’ve wrangled the external distractions, tame the internal ones.

You can’t effectively listen if you’re loading your brain with your next response.

Instead of creating the perfect take-down while the other person is still talking, wait. Repeat (out loud) what you heard them say. Use the form of a question. By turning the thought into speech, you’ll confirm you heard the right thing. You might also understand it differently.

3. Take feedback

Don’t be afraid to modify your plans and timeframes based on what you learn.

Incorporating someone else’s good feedback into your idea is one of the fastest paths to leadership success. Teams buy-in more quickly when they feel their leader is listening.

Show them you’re listening by validating the good ideas they offer.

Sometimes, you’ll have to go back on another commitment. You might suffer a temporary delay or even a financial loss. It might be embarrassing. But by changing course based on valid input, you may actually save everyone from an even greater loss.

4. Measure your results

Check in with your team regularly to find out how well you’re listening.

Don’t confuse this with consensus decision making. Most teams know their leader has to make tough calls. They also know when they’re being steamrolled.

If you’re listening while making tough calls, your team will say things like:

She listened to us all and made the best decision based on the information we gave her.

He was in a tough spot. There weren’t any really good options. I’m glad I didn’t have to make that call.

It is impossible (and often undesirable) to get your entire team to agree all the time. But it is possible for everyone to feel like you listened to their input — which is why they’re around you in the first place.

5. Become (even more) accountable

Find at least one other person you can trust to give you open and honest feedback.

Create safety for them. Ask them to tell you when they see you failing to listen. Set up a regular time to tell them where you’re struggling or have failed. Get their insight on how you can continue to improve.

Formally survey your own team. Then, own the results and continuously improve.

After all, that’s what leaders do.


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